Shaunna Morgan Siegers was first called by the land and water when she was 18, halfway through her first year at university.
She says she could see herself sitting on the high banks of the Rupert River, looking west at the setting sun. She headed home, to the Waskaganish First Nation on the southern shores of James Bay, in northern Quebec.
A few years later, she says, she was called again after listening to her uncle tell her about trying to stop a dam from being built on the La Grande River, also in northern Quebec.
In court, elders testified that the dam would ruin nearby fish spawning grounds, but it was built anyway. The end result, Siegers said, was that more than one million hectares of land was flooded, causing the vegetation to deteriorate and release huge amounts of mercury that made the fish inedible.
What Siegers’ uncle told her next changed her life.
“We need our own scientists, we need our own people to speak that language so they can corroborate what the elders are saying,” he told her.
“And that’s when I realized I really like plants and animals and I thought maybe I will get a science degree. I liked it so much, I got two,” Siegers said. “I’m sure many of you have heard the call and answered that call to care for the lands and waters in your own way.”
Siegers is now the operations manager for the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, a group that is pushing for the strengthening of Indigenous nationhood and advocating for a national federally funded Indigenous-led network of Indigenous Guardians.
Guardians are the 'eyes on the ground'
In the 2017 federal budget, the government announced a $25-million, four-year pilot program to test the approach of having Indigenous people take responsibility to protect their traditional lands, waters and ice.
Siegers says the program allows Indigenous guardians to speak their truth and use the language of science to protect the lands.
“More importantly, it’s about elevating our Indigenous knowledge," says Shaunna Morgan Siegers, who runs operations for the Indigenous Leadership Initiative. "Valuing and keeping Indigenous ways of knowing…is at the very heart of this work.”
“More importantly, it’s about elevating our Indigenous knowledge. Valuing and keeping Indigenous ways of knowing … is at the very heart of this work,” Siegers said.
On Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, more than 300 First Nations guardians, leaders and partners met in Vancouver to kick off a national guardians network.
The gathering was hosted by the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, the British Columbia Assembly of First Nations and Environment and Climate Change Canada.
B.C. Premier John Horgan was there on Tuesday afternoon and representatives from a similar, successful program in Australia also gave their perspective.
Guardians are employed as the “eyes on the ground” in Indigenous territories. They monitor ecological health, maintain cultural sites and protect sensitive areas and species. They work on land-use and marine-use plans and promote intergenerational sharing of knowledge.
There are more than 40 Indigenous Guardian programs already in Canada, including the Haida Gwaii Watchmen who have been operating since 1981.
Miles Richardson, former president of the Haida Nation and a senior advisor for the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, told the gathering about the early days of the Haida Watchmen.
In the early 1980s, he had just earned his university degree and came home, where he was elected president of the Haida Nation.
He remembers sitting down with the Haida elders, talking about what could be done. Pesticides were being sprayed on Haida Gwaii, trees were being threatened to be cut down and there was a plan to drill for oil and gas off the shores. It was a crisis, he says.
“I’ll never forget what our elders told us. They said, ‘You know, for 150, almost 200 years, we’ve been trying to get along with these people and trying to explain to them their own law, their own proper way and it hasn’t worked,’” he said. “‘Our generation may not survive if they drill for oil and gas. You have to protect Haida Gwaii. You have to protect our life source. You must stop the destruction of our life force.’”
Our relationship to homeland is what makes us Haida, leader says
Richardson said it didn’t make any difference how much money the Haida got from the government.
“That’s not what made us Haida,” he said. “That’s not what made our people who we are, it’s our relationship to our homeland.”
And that, he says, led the Haida to create their own land-use plans, under their own jurisdiction and authority.
“We told them where they had to quit logging and we told them how management has to be over fishing. We told them what areas they were not going to touch and that were going to be protected in their natural state forever,” he said. “They laughed at us, but that plan became our mandate. We blockaded and we went to court."
“Canadians and British Columbians and people around the world believed our story, believed our truth and came to stand with us. In the early 90s we signed the Gwaii Haanas agreement with Canada, which was the first nation-to-nation agreement.”
Richardson said a national guardians program would take $500 million and the next steps are to hold regional consultations and then to create a formal proposal.
Today's guardians are responsible for ancient knowledge and traditions
Dave Porter, a member of the Kaska Nation in northeastern B.C. and southeastern Yukon, a former deputy premier of Yukon and the CEO of the BC First Nations Energy and Mining Council, told the gathering that his aunt told him stories about her people communicating with everything around them.
“When they went hunting, they would take advice from the ravens as to where to hunt. She passed away recently,” he said. The interwoven lives of people and creatures such as caribou, ptarmigans, and peregrine falcons, ensured that every being had food to eat.
“Our people are spiritual people who respect the natural world,” Porter said. “We pray … to the sun for its light-giving energy. In our prayers, we thank the moon for bringing light to the darkest winter nights. The illumination of the moon’s light would facilitate our people’s ability to travel and to hunt the land.
“Our people gave thanks for the March winds, whose warm breaths would build a crest on top of the snow, allowing our hunters to stay on top as they tracked their game.”
Porter said responsibility for these ancient traditions and knowledge are now passed on to the guardians of today.
“In less than 50 years, our elders went on a journey from snowshoes to satellites and witnessed change with their own eyes, the global march to self-destruction,” Porter said. “Our people know the mountains, the seas, the plains, the rivers, the valleys and the trails that cover our homelands throughout North America. The land is our (home) and it looks after us and in turn it is our sacred duty … to look after the land.”
Porter spoke about how Indigenous songs, systems of government, art and language have greatly enriched civilizations and continue to do so. But colonization threatened his people and turned their lives upside down.
“Successive colonial governments exploited our homelands for the resources they contained and followed genocidal policies that brought enormous human tragedies and even death to our people,” Porter said. “This time, you, the guardians here in this room, will, on our behalf, and on behalf of your nations and your people, be the vanguard of the battles to be waged combining traditional knowledge with modern science to find and implement solutions to the frightening realities of dying oceans, disappearing caribou, toxic landscapes and polluted air.”
Porter believes every First Nation in Canada should have the resources to start their own guardians program.
“Our nations need the work of the guardians. Canada needs guardians. The world needs guardians,” he said.
Valerie Courtois, a member of the Innu community of Mashteuiatsh in Quebec and a director at the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, said she has personally seen the transformation that is possible with a guardians program, not only for communities, but also for the individual guardians.
“In the Innu Nation, our men become men by hunting and being a part of the land. Our women are recognized as strong women by being able to provide for their families,” Courtois said. “In this modern day and age, that reality is not always easy. For me, the structure and approach to guardianship is a way of thinking about good people within our community and a good role, and a good life, within a modern context.”
The $25-million pilot project is a good start, but much more is needed, Courtois said. Two guardian programs in the Northwest Territories were assessed in 2016 and it was found that for every $1 invested, the projects delivered about $2.50 of social, economic, cultural and environmental benefits, the Indigenous Leadership Initiative said in a news release.
The Australian government has invested $840 million in Indigenous Ranger programs from 2007 to 2023.
“We need at least that much, if not more, in this country to really realize the vision of every Indigenous nation,” Courtois said.
Australian program covers 65 million hectares and improves social indicators
Denis Rose and Aaron Morgan, two Australian Rangers were at the gathering, sharing their experiences. The program there has been in place for 20 years and includes 75 protected Indigenous areas of more than 65 million hectares, Rose said. It decreases negative social indicators like poor health and over-representation in the justice system and also provides meaningful employment, Rose said.
One of the things the Australian Rangers work on is preventative burning, which has reduced the severity and quantity of wildfires. The Rangers also do weed and pest control, cultural burning, fencing, training and much more, Morgan said. The program targets youth who have dropped out of school and many of the Rangers have transferred from welfare programs.
“I was 17 when I became a ranger and didn’t really know anything. I worked my way up and now I’m a senior ranger today,” said Morgan, 23.
When asked what advice the Australians would give to the B.C. premier and Canada's prime minister, Rose said his advice would be to be confident that First Nations people can do this.
“Certainly, the commitment is there. Make sure you do it on their terms,” Rose said. “If the (Australian) government tried to impose its will the barriers would have gone up for sure and it wouldn’t have worked to the degree it has today.”
Niall O’Dea, associate assistant deputy minister of the Canadian Wildlife Service at Environment and Climate Change Canada, said the Australian rangers made an impact in Ottawa.
“I think that really brought home the kind of value that this type of work on a greater scale can offer and hopefully put a twinkle in the eye of folks contemplating how to scale this up as we move beyond this pilot initiative and make the case for longer-term support,” O’Dea said.
Richardson, from the Haida Nation, echoed those thoughts, saying the initiative must be Indigenous-led.
“Premier Horgan, I’m really encouraged that you’re here today,” Richardson said. “I hope we can find ways to work together…all of our future depends on it. Not only for climate change, the salmon crisis on this coast, all of these issues we have in common, we’re best to address them together on a nation-to-nation basis.”
Horgan spoke at the end of the first day, saying he had spent time in Australia in the 1980s and over the years had worked with many of the First Nations leaders who had spoken at the gathering.
“As I’ve become older, I’d like to think I’ve become wiser. I firmly believe that we are, as individuals, an amalgam of all of the people and actions that come across our path as we go through this journey of life,” Horgan said. “It is such a thrill to have the opportunity to make a significant difference when it comes to reconciliation here in B.C. and hopefully right across Canada.”
Horgan used the example of changes made to protect wild salmon in the Broughton Archipelago as a successful government-to-government negotiation.
“I went to the Big House in Alert Bay and I heard from hereditary and other Indigenous leaders about their concerns about wild salmon,” Horgan said. “Salmon are iconic to all British Columbians, but to Indigenous people they are more than food, they are culture, they are everything. They are the land, they are the animals and we need to do something about it together, was what I heard.”
Horgan said he worked with Chief Bob Chamberlin, vice-president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, and other leaders in the area and came up with a plan to eliminate fish farms in the salmon’s migratory routes.
“That is putting into place guardians, as we rebuild and re-establish the wild salmon runs by making sure there are local guardians to protect, preserve and bring back the rivers and streams that have been vacant of salmon for so many, many years now,” Horgan said. “It’s a real and practical symbol of genuine reconciliation about taking an issue that was profoundly important, not just to the people of the Broughton, but to all British Columbians, and doing it nation to nation, in a respectful way.”